The world can be a terrible and cruel place. A miserable place, you might say. And that's especially true in 1815.
That's when the emaciated and hobbled Jean Valjean is finally released from his prison debts. Nearly 20 years he spent in near slavery—five for simply stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child, another 14 for trying to escape his too-cruel bonds.
Valjean's misery doesn't end there, though. Even after parole he must carry and present his papers in every town and hamlet his bare, half-frozen feet can carry him to. Papers that mark him as a former criminal so that none of the locals will offer him work or give shelter to the likes of him. In fact, he's hounded and beaten like a mongrel wherever he goes. Kindness and forgiveness are but the hopes of fools.
Fortunately for Valjean there is one man who is willing to offer him a bit of both. A priest sees him shivering in a church doorway and invites him in for a meal, some bread, a glass of wine—luxuries Valjean never believed he'd see again.
In spite of this great kindness, however, the marked man can't keep himself from stealing the priest's few silver plates and cups. It's a shameful, ungrateful move born out of desperation. And he should have known that a criminal with a sack of stolen silver doesn't get far. The authorities nab him and drag him to the church, ready to beat him and send him back to the galleys.
It's then that Valjean gets his first glimpse of heaven's grace. Of God's infinite mercy even in the face of sickening sin.
The priest says that he freely gave the plates and cups to the ex-convict.
"In fact, you forgot the most valuable pieces," the priest reports, shoving two silver candlesticks into Valjean's sack. Then the kindly churchman whispers in Valjean's ear, "You must use this silver to become an honest man."
"What have I done, sweet Jesus?" Valjean shouts out as he gives lyrical voice to his inner pain and shame. "Is there another way to go?" And as he prays and cries before a church altar, the answer soon comes. Yes, there is another course, that inner voice seems to say. You must be a different man … a better man.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
That's exactly what Valjean does. He rips up his parole papers and uses his silver to build a business that employs the poor. And he stays ever mindful of any who may be in need. For instance, he singlehandedly rescues a man from a tipped over wagon. Later, when another man is falsely accused of being him, Valjean presents himself before the court to admit his guilt and vindicate the put-upon prisoner (even though that means he'll likely be arrested).
One night, Valjean spots one of his former workers—a woman named Fantine who was unjustly fired by Valjean's foreman. He rushes to her aid and eventually promises to adopt the dying woman's daughter Cosette. He raises the girl as his daughter and sacrifices for her repeatedly, even extending his protective umbrella to cover the boy she eventually falls in love with, Marius. Indeed, he puts his life on the line to save his life. (Marius is in danger because he's involved in a quest to free the masses from the tyranny of the ruling class, embraced by a group of young zealots who stir up a public revolution.)
The "love at first sight" infatuation between Cosette and her handsome suitor Marius eventually evolves into a more enduring commitment. But at first it's obvious that a girl named Éponine is the one who truly loves this young man. In fact, she ultimately sacrifices her life to protect him—which is the first time he recognizes her feelings.
It's that kind of commitment and self-sacrifice that drives the unmarried Fantine, even in her fallen state, to desperately do everything she can to support her daughter (who is being kept by another family). After getting thrown into the streets, Fantine sells all she has—her hair, her teeth … and finally her body. (More on the latter sacrifice in "Sexual Content.")
Police inspector Javert is always in pursuit of the lawbreaking Valjean. On the face of things, he is a man dedicated to upholding every letter of the law. However, it's soon apparent that the officer is more obsessed with his idea of carrying out levied sentences than in true justice. Certainly forgiveness is not in his vocabulary. Which makes it all the more powerful when Valjean spares his pursuer's life at a crucial juncture, opting to replace vengeance with grace and letting him go free.
This is a time in France when the church was a place of sought-out refuge for all. Crosses, crucifixes and religious iconography can be spotted on nearly every wall and in every room. We see a convent full of nuns, and Valjean in several churches.
When the priest invites Valjean in for a meal, he tells him, "What we have, we have to share." The pastor prays over their meal. And when later he gives the ex-convict his silver he tells him, "I have saved your soul for God." We see Valjean praying, looking skyward at various points after that.
Several people sing of the disappointments and agonies of life, and their hopes for God's aid and forgiveness. Some wonder if God exists. But this operetta does not. Its lyrics and narrative theme point straight toward God's grace, His love, His forgiveness, His mercy, His sacrifice for us all.
When Valjean steps forward to help Fantine and rescue Cosette, Fantine tells him, "Good monsieur, you come from God in heaven." Before he dies, Valjean asks God and his daughter to forgive all his trespasses, and he states that "to love another person is to see the face of God."
Twenty or so prostitutes plying their "trade" beneath the docks expose just about as much skin as is possible in a PG-13 film, cupping their breasts, and shaking their torsos and backsides in the direction of potential customers. The famous "Lovely Ladies" song speaks of sailors "poking" the women and dropping their "anchors." And we see quick images of some of them doing just that in the shadow-shrouded grime and filth.
Then the camera takes a bit longer watching Fantine—dressed in a hiked-up, bare-shouldered petticoat—as she and her first sexual customer consummate their transaction with realistic sexual movements. Her pain and despair over what she feels she's forced to do is so palpable here that it's nearly as smothering as the grimness of her surroundings and the crudeness of the act itself.
Another sex scene, this one set up to be humorous, involves a different prostitute (clothed) straddling a male customer on a bed. Again we see them moving and bouncing as another man steals a coin purse while hiding beneath them.
Picking a man's pocket, an innkeeper named Thénardier fondles a woman's clothed breast. His wife sits on a handsome officer's lap and reaches her hand down toward his crotch as she sings. We see a man's nearly naked backside. Éponine binds her breasts with a long cloth to pass for a boy. Fantine is fired by a lusting foreman who tries to seduce her. Fantine, Madame Thénardier and young Éponine, along with other women, all display too-generous amounts of their breasts by way of their tightly cinched bodices.
As the short-lived revolution takes place in the streets of Paris, there are a number of clashes involving cannon and rifle fire. Improvised barricades, along with their occupants, are blown up. Most victims fall down dead with a small amount of blood spatter. Some are wounded, bleeding from foreheads or upper bodies. A young woman and a 12-year-old boy are shot by soldiers, and we see them bleed to death. We see stacked corpses in the street, and the gutters run red.
Several people are punched or hit with wooden clubs. And an aggressive lout has his face scratched by an angry Fantine. Fantine also has some of her teeth removed by a barber with a crude set of clamps; we see the bloodied holes in her gums when she sings. Valjean is beaten several times by townspeople after his release from prison.
When faced with the conflict between accepting an unexplained grace and delivering an immoral "justice," Javert reasons that he can't live with either choice … and commits suicide. He leaps from a high bridge, and his body crashes viciously into a stone partition before sinking into the water below.
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word. One or two uses each of "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard," one of "b--ch." Jesus' name is misused a half-dozen times, most often by the innkeeper. God's also comes up as exclamatory.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Valjean and the priest have wine with their dinner. Customers at a bar/inn drink some form of wine or alcohol. And young revolutionaries regularly smoke pipes and pass bottles of wine around during their planning meetings and behind their barricades.
Before prostituting herself, Fantine is given, and drinks, a small vial of a pain-killing agent.
Other Negative Elements
The garish and crude antics of the thieving innkeepers are lightly "celebrated" as humorous. They include urinating (onscreen) into a wine bottle that's destined for a patron's table, and grinding up rats, birds and cat tails for meat pies. Oh, and it turns out that their "care" for Cosette was something much closer to using her as a slave.
Realism and musical theater. The two don't readily mix. In fact, musical theater is by its very nature something that purposely stretches beyond the borders of reality—adding a sparkling song to any conversation and an orchestral sweep to every tear.
Thus, in bringing Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's blockbuster musical to the world of movies, director Tom Hooper had to go to considerable lengths to try to fuse the two. Sometimes in gritty directions.
Hooper insisted, for instance, that for the sake of realism, all the show's lyrical lines (and all of its lines are lyrical) had to be delivered live on the set rather than lip-synced to prerecorded tracks. That makes for some particularly powerful moments, most of them delivered with emotionally wrenching oomph by Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway as Valjean and Fantine. But for other "more-actor-than-singer" performers in the cast it made things challenging. The rules-obsessed Javert, for example, is a central character left almost featureless because of actor Russell Crowe's struggles to emote and hit his high notes at the same time.
Then there are the film's unflinching depictions of Parisian squalor in the early 1800s. From the wretched, toothless alley-bound masses to the blood-filled street gutters to the scab-covered, half-dressed prostitutes fornicating and shaking their "goods" under the grimy port docks, this Les Mis presents some seriously disquieting moments. Moments that no tune can rescue and that few families will want to stomach.
It would be grossly unfair, though, not to end this review with tribute to a story of the struggle between man's laws and God's grace in a fallen, heartless world. When the ill-fated Fantine is shorn, beaten and stripped of her humanity while desperately trying to care for her daughter, her song of lost dreams takes on a painful intensity rarely seen on film. And when the repeatedly maligned and beaten-down Jean Valjean falls to his knees in awe of one man's kindness and in recognition of God's life-changing love, we can fully and profoundly understand his tearful surprise and emotional exhilaration.
There are story threads of revenge and rescue, revolution and romance in this epic opus. But at its immersive and orchestrally soaring heart, Les Misérables makes it clear that we wretched humans can only truly find freedom by forgiving and loving one another. And we can only do that by openly accepting God's redemption. God's. Not just one merciful man's. And that's a beautiful song indeed.
Own Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre version of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Available for download and on CD.